The Debate over Adopt-a-Programs
At least once a year on any internet adoption forum, a thread will erupt about the ubiquitous adopt-a-______ (highway, zoo animal, planter, needy family, or whatever) programs and what adoptive parents can and should do to stop them. The debate of Adopt-a-Programs is heated indeed, but I have to wonder if they are really so bad.
Many folks, including most adoption professionals, feel very strongly that these programs insult adopted children and their families. Form letters are readily available for parents to mail to the offending organizations explaining how the use of the word “adoption” in this way is demeaning and harmful to our children. Less often, but still common, are internet threads and discussions condemning the use of the word “adoption” to refer to acquiring a family pet.
The experts seem to be unanimous against using “adoption” in any way other than to build a family, so who am I to disagree. And yet, these discussions always leave me feeling vaguely uneasy. Chicken that I am, I’ve been quite content to hold my tongue and keyboard and sit these discussions out.
Recently, I received a question about a second-grade class raising money to “adopt” a zoo animal. The questioner wondered if she should ask the teacher to change the name of the program because she was concerned that her adopted daughter would be confused or feel diminished by this language. I spent the week mulling over whether I should respond, and if so, how.
A Conversation with My Daughter
As luck would have it, fate intervened in my pondering and procrastination. While driving one of my daughters (then age 13) to piano lessons we passed an adopt-a-highway sign by our local high school.
Daughter: What’s up with these adopt-a-highway signs? What exactly do they mean?
Me: [Surprised by serendipity and not one to miss an opportunity especially when it drops in my lap, I jumped right in.] Funny that you should ask since I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. How do you feel about them? Do you think they should use that word? How does that make you feel?
Daughter: [Painfully long pause while she looks at me with an expression that could politely be called quizzical, but more likely could be interpreted as “What planet did you come from?”] Huh???
At this point, I feel a bit like the parent in the old sex ed joke. The kid asks where did I come from, and the parent launches into a complete discussion of the mechanics of sex. The kid responds, “I mean was I born in Minneapolis or St. Paul?
Me: Um, what was your question again?
Daughter: Why is that girl’s name on the adopt-a-highway sign? I thought it had to be a business. [A high school student had adopted the section of the highway running by the school, and her name was on the sign.] And what were you talking about?
Me: [After briefly explaining how adopt-a-highway worked, I explained myself.] Some people think that the word “adopt” shouldn’t be used casually like for cleaning up a highway or giving money to a zoo for sponsoring an animal. They think it is offensive to people who are adopted. What do you think?
Daughter: [Clearly intrigued by the question, she pauses to think it through.] Well, until you just mentioned it, I’ve never thought about it. I hear that word all the time, and it doesn’t bother me at all. It just means to take care of the highway, and that doesn’t have anything to do with me. It’s like with our pets. We adopted them, and they are a part of our family.
Me: But I think adopting a pet is different from adopting a child. My commitment to you guys is totally different and much deeper than my commitment to our pets.
Her: Yea, but you love us both. You can love things differently. Like, you love Thai food, but you wouldn’t want to marry it. You can adopt things differently too.
Me: English is a funny language that way. Words can mean so many different things, but I do think we have to be careful with what words we use.
Her: Maybe, but this just seems silly.
After piano, we went to pick up her friend Katie for a sleep-over. Katie, also 13 at the time, was adopted from China. My daughter suggested that I ask Katie what she thought.
Me: Do you think it is offensive when people talk about adopting a highway or adopting an animal from a zoo?
Katie: [Looking at me wearily like this was a trick question.] What do you mean by offensive?
Me: Hurting your feelings.
Katie [Looking perplexed.]: Why would it hurt my feelings?
Me: Well, I don’t necessarily mean your feelings, but it might hurt another adopted person’s feelings because they could think that using the word “adopt” in that way would make adoption seem less permanent or important.
Katie [Who, by the way, is a very concrete thinker.]: Well, of course, adopting a highway isn’t that important. I guess that could hurt the highway’s feelings, but not mine. What else would they call it?
Me: They could call it sponsoring the highway.
Katie: That’s true but it doesn’t sound as good as Adopt-a-Highway and would take up more room on the sign.
Daughter: Face it, mom, it’s kind of weird to be hurt by using the word adopt like that. It’s just a different way to use the word.
Katie [Who is more diplomatic than my daughter.]: Some people are really sensitive and maybe a little insecure, and that’s probably why they care.
Unlike my daughter and Katie, I don’t underestimate the power of words. Words both reflect and influence attitudes, and attitudes matter. The argument in the adoption community against the use of the word “adoption” for highways, rubber ducks, or even pets, is that it lessens the meaning of the word. To adopt a child means forming a lifelong commitment to love, raise, and cherish this child, the same as giving birth to a child. When you adopt a highway or flower bed, there is no lifelong commitment or even caring, it’s all about money.
With the family pet, it’s a bit trickier, but even the most ardent animal lover, like me, feels a different commitment to pets than to children. If one of my children developed an allergy to one of our cats, or if one of our dogs started to bite unprovoked, I would find another home for the pet. My child’s comfort and safety would come first. But when my kids become obnoxious, I consider many options but never finding them another home. Although adoption disruptions are real, they are not common and are considered a tragedy by all concerned.
Are Our Kids Really That Fragile?
That’s the party line, and it’s true, but there is something about all this that leaves me unsettled. It’s as if our adopted children and the very institution of adoption are so fragile that using the wrong word can cause major confusion or fundamentally undermine self-esteem. This simply doesn’t reflect the reality that I see. I asked this question to two adult friends who were adopted, and it isn’t their reality either.
The English language doesn’t lend itself to such exactness. Lots of words have different meanings. As my daughter pointed out, love can be used to refer to the deepest, most profound feeling known to humans, but it can also be used casually to mean strongly prefer or like. Even the phrase “give birth” can mean bringing forth a child, but can also mean coming up with an idea or plan. It would seem ludicrous for a child by birth to feel less important because of this other meaning. Years ago when writing my book (The Complete Book of International Adoption), I referred to it, not always lovingly, as our fifth child. I don’t think my children were confused by this.
Who is Really Hurt?
I dislike and mistrust any hyper-focus on word choice because it often backfires on the ones it is supposed to help. One time at a playgroup, one mother asked another mom very politely about her son’s condition and referred to the child as a midget. The child’s mother responded curtly that midget was a derogatory word and that her child should be referred to as “a person of short stature”. As you would imagine, her response was a conversation killer. I later found out that the questioner’s cousin had recently given birth to a child with dwarfism, and she was trying to learn more.
So, who benefited by this focus on word correctness? The only thing the embarrassed questioner learned was that word choice was very important, and since she wasn’t certain of the preferred words, she shouldn’t talk about it at all. Ultimately the real loser was the boy. The best thing for this child would be for the world to know more, not less, about his condition. The mother missed the opportunity to educate five interested and sympathetic listeners, who would have gone forth and educated more people, and in the process create a better environment for her child to live.
It’s hard to keep up with the politically correct words: dwarf or midget or person of short stature; blind or visually impaired; real parent or birth parent; birth parent or first parent; natural child or child by birth; adopt or sponsor. I will continue to do what I have always done. I try to not use the word “adopt” to refer to inanimate objects. Truthfully, I don’t do this to protect my child, but to avoid offending others in the adoption community, mostly adoptive parents. I try to avoid referring to adding an animal to a family as “adoption”, but this usually seems artificially forced, so most of the time I don’t worry about it. I don’t ask for a change of names when our schools adopt zoo animals, needy families, or even garbage cans. Nor do I ask that they change the name of the history unit titled “Birth of a Nation.”
What we all need is more light and openness on supposedly taboo topics, such as adoption. I pray that our children are not hothouse flowers that will wilt in this light. My goal is to grow a child that is more like a black-eyed Susan or hardy aster that can thrive anywhere and understands that the nuances of language are just that.
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First Published in 2008; Updated in 2018 Image credit: Helen Orozco, A.J. Thursby